Using the Social Vulnerability Index to Identify Communities in Need during an Emergency

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Using the Social Vulnerability Index to Identify Communities in Need during an Emergency

Alice Frame, MA - MDHHS Disabilities Unit Coordinator

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Geospatial Research, Analysis & Services Program (GRASP) within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created databases in 2011 to help emergency response planners and public health officials identify and map communities that will most likely need support before, during, and after a hazardous event (CDC, 2018; Flanagan, Gregory, Hallisey, Heitgerd, & Lewis, 2011).

Social vulnerability refers to a community’s resilience and ability to respond effectively following crisis or disaster based on a variety of factors including poverty, unsafe or crowded housing, or lack of reliable transportation. The CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) is one such database that was designed to help emergency planners and responders identify and map a community’s most vulnerable areas based on fifteen social factors across four themes:

  1. Socioeconomic status - income, poverty, employment, and education
  2. Household composition - age, single parenting, and disability
  3. Minority status/language - race, ethnicity, and English-proficiency
  4. Housing/transportation - housing structure, crowding, and vehicle access

Each social factor increases the likelihood that a person will require assistance following an emergency.

The SVI database and map can be used by emergency management personnel in many ways, including to:

  • Identify areas lacking access to clean water sources, pharmacies, and medical dispensaries, or healthy foods following an emergency.
  • Identify areas lacking safe and adequate housing that may need emergency shelters.
  • Identify areas with high numbers of individuals who may need assistance in an evacuation, such as people with disabilities, people without access to transportation, the elderly, or people who don’t speak English
  • Identify communities that may need continued support after the immediate aftermath of the emergency

While all communities may be faced with an emergency, some are more prepared than others to respond and recover. By using the SVI, emergency planners can identify and prepare communities that may be less resilient in emergencies and establish response plans accordingly to sufficiently meet those needs.


Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2018. CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). Retrieved from

Flanagan, B. E., Gregory, E. W., Hallisey, E. J., Heitgerd, J. L., & Lewis, B. (2011). A social vulnerability index for disaster management. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 8(1).